Speculation had been rampant that the San Francisco 49ers were looking to trade up in the first round of the NFL draft to secure a wide receiver or cornerback. With each passing selection, it seemed as if it was just a matter of time before the Niners jumped ahead to select an Odell Beckham or Justin Verrett. Despite the anticipation, the move never happened.
Instead, the 49ers stayed put at number 30, and took a player that no one though they would: Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward.
The selection was initially perplexing because the 49ers don’t have a need at safety. In fact, they have two starters set in stone in Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea. However, despite Ward being listed as a safety, the team confirmed that they see him as a versatile prospect who will compete to play the nickel role in the defense.
On the surface, this may sound as if the team used their first round pick on someone who will be a backup, but if you consider how often San Francisco uses their nickel package, that’s not entirely the case.
Baalke’s comments hold merit. If Ward does win the nickel spot (as he is now expected to do), he will play a very important role in what the 49ers want to accomplish. The team has struggled covering the slot receiver, and you could make the argument that it has cost them a championship (or two).
Carlos Rogers gave up a a 35-yard touchdown on a fourth down play in the 2013 NFC Championship game in the slot that ultimately cost the 49ers the game, and he was also burned by Victor Cruz in the 2011 NFC Championship to the tune of 10 catches for 142 yards.
As far as evidence of what Ward can bring in the role, you have to look no further than examples in the 49ers’ own division. In regards to playing time, last season Arizona Cardinals’ Tyrann Mathieu played safety in the team’s base package, but the slot in the nickel/dime. He was on the field as a corner 73.1 percent of the time.
Ward could also play the role of a Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, as a versatile cover man who can roam the middle of the field on nickel and dime coverages to work against slot receivers and tight ends. This can minimize linebacker presence and get the 49ers in more favorable coverage matchups.
As far as the future, Ward could step into one of the starting safety roles in two years, as Bethea’s contract will allow the 49ers to move on from him at that time should they choose.
Because of foot surgery, the 49ers don’t expect to see Ward on the field until the start of training camp in mid-July. At that point he will be thrust into the competition to man the slot with Perrish Cox and Eric Wright.
Photo: Getty Images
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